"You can't go out there and win the job on one play. It doesn't work that way." - Ryan Day
It's easy to make decisions from the outside, looking in.
For the first time, Ohio State fans were able to watch the blue-chip QB trio of C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller, and Kyle McCord throw passes while wearing the Scarlet and Gray in last Saturday's Spring Game. While all three put up better stat-lines than either of the Buckeyes' prior starting signal-callers did in their spring debuts, many are ready to declare to the competition over based simply on the results of a few dozen snaps.
When examining the box score, Stroud seemed to have the most impressive day by completing 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. McCord was close behind, going 12 of 17 for 184 yards and two TDs of his own while Miller had the toughest day of the three, going 17 of 30 for just 128 yards, one score, and an interception.
As my colleague, Dan Hope, outlined earlier this morning, all three had more highs than lows and largely took care of the football. The lone turnover came on the game's first drive as cornerback Ryan Watts made a great recovery to not only find the receiver, but also the football, after getting spun around by Garrett Wilson's release off the line.
While Miller arguably shouldn't have made the throw, it's the kind of excusable mistake you'd expect from a young QB still adjusting to the speed of defenders at this level.
Similarly, McCord was stripped by fellow five-star freshman Jack Sawyer on his first drive of the game, as the talented pass rusher made a great play to shove his blocker right into the young QB. As McCord took more snaps, however, there were no other such ball-control issues.
Instead of simply measuring the results, then, Ryan Day and his staff will undoubtedly look a level deeper to evaluate the three candidates for the most visible job in Central Ohio. While many fans will focus on the physical attributes, past accomplishments, or social media proficiencies of each, the Buckeye coaches will likely focus on which player can best be trusted to execute the playbook.
Though Day has tailored his system to fit the different skill sets of J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, and Justin Fields, he has maintained consistency with the types of pass concepts inserted in weekly game plans. Day "buckets" these concepts by type, which can help us understand how much of the playbook each QB is asked to carry out.
By no means did Day show off his entire system in this glorified scrimmage, but there was enough of it on display to showcase the subtle differences between the three quarterbacks in contention. The ability to execute a handful of core passing concepts may go a long way to determining which is most qualified to line up under center on September 2nd.
Let's take a deeper look at how each performed on these plays:
As Miller opened the game, it appeared that short throws underneath might make up the majority of Day's play-script, hitting receivers quickly and in rhythm as Team Buckeye worked its way down the field. With the defense sitting in a Cover 3 zone on most early downs (more to come on this topic in the future), Buckeye receivers consistently stretched the underneath defenders laterally with a series of short curl routes.
Such throws are clearly Miller's comfort zone as he had no trouble working from one route to another, moving his feet with his eyes, and delivering throws on time and on target.
But he was far from the only one capable of completing these passes with ease. Stroud appeared just more than capable of finding seams in the defense.
McCord was only given one crack at this concept, in which he tucked and ran when his first two reads weren't open. The true freshman had the chance to hit his running back out in the flat but elected to take care of the ball rather than risk a telegraphed throw.
While Miller spent the majority of his first drive hitting curl routes underneath, Stroud was asked to chuck it downfield after taking his first snap of the afternoon. After faking a handoff, he looked down the right sideline to find his first read covered, then pivoted back toward the middle of the field and lofted a perfect ball into the hands of a streaking Emeka Egbuka - all with the pocket collapsing in front of him.
The play, known as Levels, is a half-field concept with which Fields would terrorize opponents, and Stroud appears to already be comfortable working this deep-to-short progression.
When given the opportunity himself, McCord also showed he could be trusted to deliver, hitting the same receiver on the same route.
Miller, however, wasn't able to keep pace. When given his chance, Miller simply missed Egbuka on the crossing route, throwing it behind the receiver.
Another staple in Day's game plans is the triangle created by crossing routes and a middle hook known as Mesh. Ever since he used the play to ravage Don Brown's defense in 2018, the OSU head coach has been careful not to rely too heavily on it from week to week.
Yet its presence in the Spring Game showed just how important Day thinks it must be for his quarterback to master. Throughout the game, each candidate was given chances to show he could work through his passing progression and deliver a throw that let his receiver pick up yards after the catch.
Continuing the theme, Stroud looked calm and collected in such situations, hitting Egbuka after looking off three other options.
McCord was given two chances to show what he could do with the play, hitting Marcus Crowley on a wheel route and picking up good yardage one occasion. On the other, he faced pressure as Sawyer collapsed the pocket and was forced into a scramble drill, delivering a strike to his outlet instead of simply throwing the ball away.
When given the chance to show his ability to hit crossing routes, Miller struggled here as well. Though given a different concept than the others, he had Chris Olave separating from the defender in man-coverage across the middle, yet Miller threw a fastball behind his target that couldn't be hauled in.
The biggest evolution in Day's offense came with the arrival of Fields and his ability to throw on the move. Instantly, the Buckeyes featured a plethora of new bootleg and sprint-out concepts that moved the star QB out of the pocket that hadn't been seen very often.
Clearly, Day feels comfortable allowing Stroud to carry out such concepts, including a pinpoint touchdown pass to Olave off a sprint-out.
Though not known as a mobile QB, McCord looked quite comfortable throwing on the move himself, executing a perfect bootleg concept near the goal line as he found the tight end for an easy six points.
Miller, on the other hand, was given few chances to run such plays, perhaps signaling that he's more of a traditional pocket passer than the others.
While the running game played a supporting role in a game without live tackling, Day still made sure to use its potential threat to set up deep passes downfield. After seeing Miller and Stroud both move the ball effectively downfield, McCord faked a handoff on his very first snap, then set his feet and fired a ball over the safety's head to a streaking Wilson.
While Stroud didn't go for the home run ball like McCord when given the chance a couple of drives later, he made perhaps the most impressive play of the day by looking off a deep post from the slot before firing a perfect ball down the sideline to Olave on a deep comeback, taking what the defense gave him.
Unlike his counterparts, we never saw such attempts from Miller in the Spring Game. Given the angle of TV cameras, it's hard to tell if he was given the chance, but the majority of his throws were underneath, failing to connect on any downfield targets.
This was just one of 15 practices held by the Buckeyes this spring. As Day noted, they all contribute to his evaluation and ultimate decision on whom will win the starting job.
"This was just a very small glimpse at a bunch of guys taking some reps," said the Ohio State head coach after the game. "There's a body of work that needs to be built from the first spring practice all the way through to the first game that has still yet to be written."
All three missed open receivers in the Horseshoe on Saturday, both in terms of their reads and their deliveries. But while Miller received more reps than the other two, it's hard not to notice the difference in the types of plays he was asked to run.
While Stroud clearly looked the most comfortable executing the game plan, often seeming to move the offense as if the defense weren't even there, he also showed the most diversity in scheme. Many of the same elements Fields was asked to carry out just a few months ago in the College Football Playoff were on display while Stroud was under center, marking a potentially smooth transition with seven starters returning on offense.
McCord, on the other hand, showed why he was the highest-rated recruit among the three, showcasing raw ability to throw downfield with poise and accuracy despite only putting on a Buckeye uniform for the first time last month. Had he been practicing with the team for a full year like the other two, he may well be the frontrunner for the job at this point.
But although the playbook seemed to be wide open for those two, it appeared more limited when Miller was on the field. Again, this may be by design, as we have no idea where each QB has shined during the previous spring practices.
However, one can't help but think of Day's final quote regarding the quarterbacks and their play on Saturday, and how the most recent Buckeye QB elevated his team to consecutive playoff appearances.
"Somewhere along the line when the game's coming down to the fourth quarter, yeah, they're going to have to go make plays," he told the local media. "If you're going to win tight games, the tough games in the fourth quarter, you're going to have to make plays in the two-minute drill, throw it really well in the red zone, and you've got to convert on third down."